The name ALMA, as Hugh Nibley pointed out some years ago, is now attested in an undeniably HEBREW/Semitic context, namely, the letters of Bar Kokhba from the Second Jewish Revolt in Palestine around the year A.D. 132. Therein, the name, ALMA ben Yehudah, appears in a business document.
In LEHI's day the name would have been spelled with an initial ʿayin, ʿlm, not the aleph of the Bar Kokhba period. The HEBREW common noun ʿlm, meaning "youth" or "lad," occurs twice in the Old Testament, 1 Samuel 17:56 and 20:22. In its feminine form, ʿalmâ appears nine times in the Old Testament, where it means "a young woman (of marriageable age)," including the famous passage in Isaiah 7:14.
The form of ALMA in the Book of Mormon reflects the HEBREW segholate noun form, ʿelem, as in 1 Samuel 20:22, but with the addition of the hypocoristic ending —a. When an ending is added, the accent shifts and the original /a/ vowel of the segholate qatl form returns. (The pausal form, because of the shift in accent, also reveals the original /a/ vowel, e.g., as in the pausal form in 1 Samuel 17:56.)
Given the usage of ģlm in Ugaritic literature (ģlm is the spelling of the name before ʿ (ʿayin) and ģ (ģayin) fell together in HEBREW orthography) as an epithet, the significance of ALMA as a personal name becomes clear. In one of the more famous epics from Ugaritic, the hero, named KRT (pronounced either "Kirta" or "Keret") is called ģlm ʾl, "lad of [the god]El" (KTU 1.14.II.8-9). If the Book of Mormon person name is analogous to this epithet, then ALMA would probably mean exactly what the Ugaritic epithet meant, "lad of God," a rather appropriate meaning for both Book of Mormon prophets who bear this name, especially since ALMA, when first introduced, is called a "young man" (Mosiah 17:2, first noted by RFS). In this sense, ALMA would be analogous to the HEBREW geber, which means "man, hero," and which appears in names such as Gabriel, "hero/man of God."
In addition to its post-biblical attestation as a personal name in the Bar Kokhba letter, its use as an epithet in Ugaritic literature, and the biblical usage as a common noun, "youth, young man," the name is also attested in the Ebla cuneiform texts that predate the HEBREW Exodus from EGYPT by about a thousand years. There the name is written al6-ma, as would be expected in cuneiform.
Of course, other etymologies are possible, though less likely. The Arabic root ʿalama / ʿalima, "knowing, erudite; distinguished; chief, chieftain," etc. (RFS and JAT), yields plausible meanings and may even contribute to a (as yet unrecognized) play on words. Also, ʾlm means "to bind" or "to be dumb" in HEBREW, and could possibly mean, with hypocoristic aleph ending, "He (God) is bound." However, this root is attested in HEBREW only in two oblique niphal and piel verbal forms, neither of which would allow the spelling as it appears in the Book of Mormon.
Deseret Alphabet: 𐐈𐐢𐐣𐐈 (ælmæ)
- Nibley, Hugh W. Book Review of Bar-Kochba by Yigal Yadin in BYU Studies 14 (Autumn 1973): 121.
- At the end of the fourth line from the top it is spelled ʾlmʾ, and at the beginning of the fourth line from the bottom ʾlmh.
- The orthography of HEBREW in the first centuries B.C. and A.D., especially Samaritan and Hasmonean HEBREW, began to reflect the coalescence of the pronunciation in the spoken language of the consonants aleph and ayin/ģayin. The same interchange occurs in Phoenician, e.g., both ʾlm and ʿlm mean "eternity." Because the HEBREW alphabet did not have separate signs for ayin and ģayin, both are represented by the same sign. By the time of the Bar Kokhba letters, the aleph, the ayin, and the ģayin were not distinguished in pronunciation, and therefore were on occasion confused in the orthography.
- Hypocoristic endings commonly represented a theophoric element (the name of a deity in a sharply contracted form), most often by a single final consonant, usually aleph, but also with final he, such as in the second occurrence in the Bar Kokhba letter. For example the hypocoristic name Abda (1 Kings 4:6 passim) shows up in its plene form in 1 Chronicles 9:16 as Obadiah. The same is true of the biblical personal name Shebna (Isaiah 22:15), which is most likely "a short form, probably from" Shebnayah(u) (HALOT). There is also an Ammonite analog to ALMA ʿbdʾ, that would mean "the servant of [the god]." See Robert Deutsch and André Lemaire, Biblical Period Personal Seals in the Shlomo Moussaieff Collection (Tel Aviv: Archaeological Center Publications, 2000), nos. 150 and 177.
- The Arabic cognate, ģulām, which carries the same meanings as the HEBREW, is not a qatl form.
- Ugarit was a small city-state that flourished between about 1500 and 1200 BC just north of present-day Latakia on the SYRIAN coast. The language spoken there is related to HEBREW and shares with it many precise poetic structures and vocabulary words.
- As mentioned previously, the two proto-Semitic consonants, ʿayin and ģayin [represented in Ugaritic by ʿ and ģ respectively], fall together in HEBREW orthography.
- Robert F. Smith “Some ‘Neologisms’ from the Mormon Canon,” 1973 Conference on the Language of the Mormons, May 31, 1973 (Provo: BYU Language Research Center, 1973), 65, online at https://www.scribd.com/document/363522963/SOME-NEOLOGISMS-FROM-THE-MORMON-CANON .
- Ebla texts come from the latter half of the Early Bronze Age, around a thousand years before MOSES, and are written in a Semitic language related to HEBREW.
- See Terrance L. Szink, "The Personal Name 'ALMA' at Ebla," The Religious Educator 1/1 (2000): 53-56.
Yigael Yadin, Bar Kokhba: The Rediscovery of the Legendary Hero of the Second Jewish Revolt Against Rome (New York: Random House, 1971), 176-7.
M. Dietrich, O. Loretz, and J. Sanmartin, The Cuneiform Alphabetic Texts from Ugaritic, Ras Ibn Hani and Other Places (Münster: Ugarit-Verlag, 1995), 1.14.II.8-9.
Cyrus H. Gordon, The Ancient Near East (Norton: New York, 1965), 93-100.
K.A. Matthews, "The Paleo-Hebrew leviticus Scroll from Qumran," BA 50:1 (March 1987): 50-51.
S. Moscati, et al., An Introduction to the Comparative Grammar of the Semitic Languages (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1969), §8.51-58.
Martin Noth, Die israelitischen Personennamen im Rahmen der gemeinsemitischen Namengebung (Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 1966 [photomechanical copy of the Stuttgart 1928 edition]), 38.
Herbert B. Huffmon, Amorite Personal Names in the Mari Texts (Baltimore: John Hopkins, 1965), 130-1.
Kent P. Jackson, "Ammonite Personal Names in the Context of the West Semitic Onomasticon," in The Word of the Lord Shall Go Forth: Essays in Honor of David Noel Freedman (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1983), 507-521.
Ran Zadok, On West Semites in Babylonia During the Chaldean and Achaemenian Periods: An Onomastic Study (Jerusalem: Wanaarta and Tel-Aviv University, 1977), 148-150.